As mentioned in our previous article on Sukot, the Prophet Jonah received his prophecy in merit of his exuberant joy during the water-drawing celebrations in the Temple. However, the prophecy he received threw him into a flight of manic depression as we will see from the wording of the verses:
Initially, God told him to continue on his upward rise, telling him, “Rise and go to the great city of Ninveh,” and indeed, Jonah seems to respond in kind, “And Jonah rose…” However, it immediately became apparent that Jonah’s spiritual high did not have enough force to elevate him any further, “And Jonah rose to flee from before God, and he descended to Jaffo.” In fact, the verb “descend” (ירד) appears twice more in the first verses of the book of Jonah, closely followed by the verb “fall asleep” (לְהִירָדֵם). This suggests a further attempt to descend into oblivion, especially considering that “descend” (ירד) and “fall asleep” (לְהִירָדֵם) share the same two-letter root (רד)! In fact, the chapter continues with numerous appearances of the verbs “toss” (הטיל), as in, “And God tossed a great wind” and “to cast [a lot]” (הפיל), as in “they cast lots,” which suggest that Jonah himself was thrown into a tumultuous descent. Jonah later describes his own descent, from the stomach of the great fish that swallowed him alive in the ocean depths, “from the belly of the grave I cried out… And You cast me into the deep in the heart of the seas… the deep encompassed me… To the bottom of the mountains I descended… but You brought up my life from hell.”
After Jonah’s heartfelt prayer, he began to rise once again, as God repeated His prophecy to him, “Rise and go to the great city of Ninveh.” This time, Jonah, completed his mission, “And Jonah rose and went to Ninveh…” However, having completed his mission, Jonah was once again thrown into emotional turbulence at the various events that God sent his way. Such was the extent of his psychological suffering that he even expressed a preference for death over life.
Expressing Thanks for Triumphing over Bipolar
One verse in the Torah that expresses the sense of manic depression, or bipolar disorder, reflected in Jonah’s alternating states of consciousness is, “They rise up to the heavens and descend to the abyss.” This verse appears in the psalm from which the sages learn the four types of individuals who should bring a thanksgiving offering to the Temple. One of these four is someone who travels out to sea, and is saved from the danger of drowning when a storm breaks out.
The symbol of a ship rising and falling on a stormy ocean, in danger of breaking apart, is particularly relevant to the story of Jonah. He was in precisely such a situation! We associate this verse with the highs and lows of bipolar disorder because, as we have now seen; it appears that Jonah himself experienced a form of it.
Taking Off and Landing Safely
The final day of the festival of Sukot is Simchat Torah, when our joy reaches its climax. Unrestrained by the confines of the sukah, and unhindered by the limits set by any particular mitzvah, we express our love of God by dancing with His Torah in pure, unadulterated elation.
On Simchat Torah, we have the opportunity to elevate ourselves from the mundane by our own efforts, symbolized by raising our legs above the ground in dance. Yet, just as when we dance we land safely back on earth, so too after Simchat Torah we land safely back in reality once more. Simchat Torah lets us experience the greatest of spiritual highs in purity and holiness.
Even though Simchat Torah manifests a higher form of joy than the previous days of the festival of Sukot, it is all amidst the backdrop of the Days of Awe. The message of Simchat Torah then is that we can reach extreme highs and lows without becoming manic or depressive. In contrast to the adverse effects of bipolar disorder, the entirety of Sukot represents the holy version of bipolarity. Since Simchat Torah allows us to safely achieve extreme highs, this day of the year represents the ultimate cure and remedy for the profane and unhealthy version of bipolar disorder chronicled in the annals of psychology.
It was an ordinary Saturday night in Jerusalem. As three stars twinkled in the inky sky and the west winds wound their way up the hills of Arnona, the prospects of assembling ten men for the evening prayers seemed dim. We stood on the sidewalk, under a streetlamp, waiting for the outdoor minyan to form. Under normal circumstances, the lack of a quorum would not concern me. In fact, under normal circumstances, I would not have been at the evening service at all. But I am saying kaddish for my father this year, and according to Orthodox Jewish law, the Aramaic mourner’s prayer cannot be said unless there is a minyan of at least ten men.
Six… seven… It was substantially past the designated start time, and the ranks were still lacking. As an eighth man arrived, I realized that if one more man were to come, I would be face-to-face with the reality that I, as a woman, do not count toward the formation of a prayer quorum. It’s not a situation that I encounter in my regular synagogue; there are always enough men there when I arrive for services. But it is a situation that I would prefer to avoid.
The moment took me back five years, to August of 2014, when Rabbi Benny Lau, then the rabbi of the Orthodox Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem, wrote a Hebrew post on Facebook describing a similar situation of waiting for a quorum, but from the other side of the mechitza:
It’s an ordinary weekday morning. Six a.m. at the Ramban synagogue in Jerusalem. Nine worshippers are waiting for a tenth man for a minyan. It’s a common crisis in mid-August. After a minute, the tenth man arrives, and the prayer leader begins the service. It’s just another insignificant event, which shouldn’t make the slightest impression on anyone.
Except that in the women’s section, there was a young woman who had come to pray. During that moment, while we were waiting for the tenth man, I looked at her from my place in the synagogue and cringed. How does it feel to see but not be seen? What is it like to watch people being counted but not be counted?
I went over to the woman and shared my feelings. She smiled. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’m used to it.” She had not come to be provocative, and no one paid particular attention to her. I am the only one who has been carrying the incident around with me all day.
I don’t want to change the rules of the club by doing something drastic, and I have no intention of doing so. I believe in deep, internal processes that are underway in society in general and in the religious community in particular. Our synagogue and its congregants have chosen to be part of a religious community that does not uproot accepted Jewish law, as many others do. But I think that at a minimum, we have the responsibility to express the frustration created by this reality.
The most important rulings of Jewish law are not issued by local rabbis (myself included). Our job is to raise and to report the questions that come up in the field and to create dynamic movement that connects the Torah and its leaders with life in the world.
In my circles, Rav Benny’s post was met with gratitude. Many women in my community can relate to the feeling of being committed yet cringing, of continuing to play by the rules of Orthodox Jewish law, while at the same time being frustrated by the inequality that characterizes some of its practices. We are Jewishly educated enough to know why we are not counted in a minyan. We are familiar with the biblical derivations that deem a prayer community to be made up of men, we know that women are exempt from positive time-bound commandments and are therefore not obligated to participate in public prayer, and we understand that differing levels of obligation preclude women and men from being counted together.
We also know that there are differences between men and women (although it is not always clear to us which are due to nature and which are due to nurture), and we understand that our role as mothers sometimes precludes our participation in communal prayer (although we may wonder why women aren’t obligated or encouraged to participate in public prayer at times in their lives when they do not have competing demands of child-rearing). Similarly, we know that we are said to have intrinsic spirituality that makes it unnecessary for us to perform certain mitzvot (although many of us don’t actually feel that spiritual connection). And there is no need to remind us — as often happens when the question of counting women in a minyan is raised — that there is not complete equality in Judaism, even among men, and that a man who is not a priest cannot recite the priestly blessing, no matter how much he may want to. We know. We accept.
My generation of women grew up in a world in which many of the assumptions about the roles of men and women found in traditional Jewish texts have changed. We work to support our families, and our husbands share childcare, cooking, and household chores with us. We studied for advanced degrees, were encouraged to engage in any profession we desired, and watched as glass ceilings were shattered and fell away. But throughout, our religious lives have been characterized by an impenetrable mechitza that keeps us separate but not necessarily equal. In most Orthodox synagogues, while men serve as rabbis and cantors, lead the prayer service, open the ark, carry the Torah, chant the Torah portion and haftarah reading, bless the congregation with the priestly blessing, and deliver the sermon, our involvement in the proceedings is limited to reciting our own prayers and singing — not too loudly — along with the service. Often the only active, participatory role that women play in the communal aspect of synagogue ritual is lobbing candies over a separation barrier at boys or men celebrating life events, or setting up food for the kiddush that follows the services. The disparity between the nature of our participation in secular society and in religious society is jarring.
So we may cringe when we find ourselves not counted for a minyan. We feel a pang when we find ourselves celebrating a new marriage at sheva brachot, in a room full of devout women with advanced degrees and strong backgrounds in Jewish texts, and a search party must be sent out to recruit a tenth for a minyan, returning with a 13-year-old boy who may or may not keep the mitzvot but qualifies as an adult male. And we squirm just a bit when someone carelessly says, “I need a tenth person” to enable the performance of a ritual, when in fact he means “a tenth man.” It’s easy to feel that you don’t count when you are not counted.
Is not being counted in a minyan the most troubling aspect of life as an Orthodox Jewish woman? Most definitely not; the plight of chained women has that dubious distinction. But Rav Benny’s post was welcomed because it’s affirming when an Orthodox rabbi, often seen as representative of the patriarchy, identifies with the challenges we face. It’s consoling when he sees our needs in the synagogue — a place where we are largely unseen, where we often have to lobby to see and hear, and where we may feel disenfranchised and disempowered. Even though Rav Benny was not prepared to take a revolutionary step and call for counting women in a quorum, his discomfort was comforting. Sometimes, it’s the thought that counts.
Standing on the pavement on Saturday night waiting for a ninth and tenth man to arrive, I remembered the one time when I was indeed counted as tenth for a prayer service. It was on a Shabbat morning at a partnership minyan in Zichron Yaakov, where I was visiting friends. In their congregation, while women are not counted as part of a quorum with men, the parts of the service that require a minyan are not said unless there are at least ten women parallel to the quorum of ten men. My hostess had set out in time for the beginning of services, but my day was off to a slower start. As I rounded the corner to the synagogue some 15 minutes later, a woman I recognized from the Friday night service was walking toward me. “Are you coming to us?” she asked. When I responded affirmatively, she replied: “Good, because we need a tenth woman so we can start.” We walked to the synagogue together, and as we entered the women’s section, as numbers nine and ten, the prayer leader recited Barchu. My being there made a difference.
Was I moved? Not particularly. Did I find it silly? Admittedly, a bit. But as I spend more and more time in synagogue during my kaddish year, virtually alone in the women’s section on weekdays and in a rather empty women’s section during most of the Shabbat services, I have begun to appreciate this partnership gesture. Perhaps if Orthodox shuls and schools were to require a quorum of women parallel to a quorum of men, there would be less of a disconnect between women and the synagogue. Perhaps if we were raised in such settings, women would come to synagogue in greater numbers, or come earlier, because we would feel that we count, even if it’s not technically for a minyan. Perhaps if we were counted, even in a symbolic way, it wouldn’t take kaddish to bring us into the synagogue on weekdays, because we would feel that we belong there and that our presence matters.
As I stood and wondered, waiting for our streetlamp minyan to form, my reverie was cut short by the addition of two more men. They arrived simultaneously, bringing us up to the required ten. By the time Barchu was recited, launching the service, we were 12 plus one.
I stood at a distance, behind the men, and recited the evening prayers. When I joined the other mourners in chanting kaddish, no one batted an eyelid. For, in contrast to the norms of the past, it is now common in Orthodox synagogues in South Jerusalem to see women saying kaddish during prayer services. Standing on the pavement, saying the last kaddish of the day, I was aware that I am part of the deep processes of evolutionary change that Rav Benny alluded to in his post, as are many women like me. We may not be counted as tenth for a minyan, but we surely count.
En la lectura de la semana pasada leemos como Moshé se dirige a los cielos y la tierra, convocándolos como testigos eternos para testimoniar lo que le está por decir al pueblo judío antes de fallecer.
“Escuchen cielos y hablaré y que la tierra oiga los pronunciamientos de mi boca.”
¿Por qué se dirige Moshé a los cielos con el verbo “escuchar” y a la tierra con el verbo “oír”? Nuestros sabios explican que el verbo Haazinu, “escuchar” implica escuchar de cerca mientras que el verbo “oír” implica oír a la distancia. Moshé, que estaba más cerca del cielo que de la tierra, empleaba el verbo que denota proximidad cuando se dirigía a los cielos y empleaba el verbo que denota distancia cuando se dirigía a la tierra.
Cielo y tierra a nivel personal
Cada hombre es un compuesto entre la dimensión celestial y la terrenal, entre lo espiritual y lo material. La diferencia entre una persona y otra es es el grado de proximidad que tiene a cada uno de las dos dimensiones. Hay quienes están más cerca de lo espiritual y hay quienes están más cerca de lo terrenal. Hay quienes aspiran a conectarse con la dimensión espiritual de la existencia y hay quienes aspiran a conectarse más con la dimensión material de la existencia.
Moshé estaba más cerca de lo espiritual que de lo material. La dimensión material de la existencia era para él nada más que una herramienta por medio de la cual posibilitar, expresar y plasmar lo espiritual.
¿Ejemplo a seguir?
¿Es Moshé un ejemplo para nosotros o una excepción, representando un ideal inalcanzable para la mayoría de nosotros (los de “a pie”)?
La pregunta se agudiza más cuando vemos que el profeta Isaías también se dirigía a los cielos y la tierra con los mismos términos que Moshé pero de una manera invertida: “Oyen cielos y escucha tierra”. Si para Isaías la tierra le era más cerca que los cielos, ¿qué nos queda a nosotros? ¿Qué podemos aprender de la manera en que Moshé se dirigía a los cielos y la tierra, de su relación con las dimensiones espirituales y terrenales de la existencia, si ni el profeta Isaías lo alcanzó?
¿Qué es superior?
Para poder responder a esta pregunta hace falta aclarar, primero: ¿Qué es superior, lo celestial o lo terrenal?
Si Ud. es lector asiduo de esta columna, seguramente habrá adivinado que la respuesta sería: “depende”.
Si bien todos estamos compuestos de alma y cuerpo, la pregunta es: ¿Somos un cuerpo que tiene un alma, o somos un alma que tiene un cuerpo?
Según la primera posibilidad lo principal en la vida sería la satisfacción física y personal y el alma vendría a cumplir la función de “batería” que vitaliza el cuerpo para que pueda funcionar. Según la segunda perspectiva es lo contrario. Somos el alma y el cuerpo es nada más que un vehículo por medio del cual el alma puede movilizarse e impactar el mundo físico.
Estudio y acción
El Talmud pregunta: ¿Qué es más importante, el estudio de la Torá o el cumplimiento de sus preceptos? La conclusión es que el estudio es más importante porque lleva a la acción. O sea, dedicarse al estudio y la sabiduría como un fin en sí mismo es un objetivo elevado pero incompleto, ya que el objetivo último sería expresar los conocimientos en el plano de la acción.
He aquí, entonces, la respuesta a la pregunta inicial, ¿cómo se supone que podemos aspirar a emularlo a Moshé si ni siquiera el profeta Isaías pudo lograrlo?
Moshé e Isaías representan dos valores y etapas en el desarrollo de cada uno de nosotros.
El primer objetivo en el camino del desarrollo personal debe ser aspirar a emular a Moshé, o sea que lo espiritual importe más que lo material. El segundo paso, y el verdadero objetivo, es el representado por Isaías: conquistar al mundo material y transformarlo en un vehículo por medio del cual se cumpla el plan Divino para lo cual el mundo haya sido creado.
La respuesta, entonces, a la pregunta de “¿cuál de los dos es más importante?” sería la siguiente: Lo espiritual es más elevado aunque lo material es más importante.
El resumen de toda la Torá
Con todo lo antedicho podemos explicar una historia curiosa en el Talmud.
El Talmud cuenta que había un gentil que quería convertirse en judío. Fue a consultar con el sabio Shamai y le planteó que quería convertirse con la condición de que le enseñara toda la Torá mientras estaba parado en un solo pie. Shamai lo echó.
Fue a plantear su propuesta al sabio Hillel, quien le contestó: No hagas a tu prójimo lo que no te gusta que te hagan a tí. El resto [de la Torá] es meramente comentario. Andá y estúdiala.
Hace falta entender: ¿Por que le dijo Hillel que el resumen de toda la Torá era amar al prójimo como a uno mismo si hay muchos preceptos en la Torá que no tienen nada que ver con el prójimo, como por ejemplo las leyes de Kósher, Mezuzá, Tefilín y Shabat?
En su libro fundacional de la filosofía de Jabad, el Rabí Schneur Zalman aborda esta pregunta por medio de otra: ¿Acaso es siquiera posible amar al prójimo como a uno mismo?
Responde, “depende”. Depende de si le damos más importancia al cuerpo o al alma. Para aquel que le da más importancia al cuerpo que al alma, es imposible amar al prójimo como a uno mismo ya que los cuerpos compiten entre sí por los mismos recursos. Lo que el otro come, no me llena el estómago a mí. En cuanto al alma, empero, todos compartimos la misma esencia espiritual. Somos todos “chispas” de la misma alma. Compartimos todos el mismo objetivo. Así que uno puede amar al prójimo como a sí mismo porque, efectivamente, es una extensión de él mismo.
El entrenamiento para poder lograr semejante perspectiva es por medio de las Mitzvot. Las Mitzvot nos acostumbran a relacionarnos con la dimensión espiritual de las cosas. La prueba para ver si realmente lo logramos es la manera en que nos relacionamos con el prójimo. ¿Lo vemos como una competencia o como una extensión?
Para concientizarnos de las dos tendencias que tenemos en nuestra relación con el mundo que nos rodea los jasidim utilizamos el Gártel (cinturón) cuando cumplen con una Mitzvá y especialmente cuando hacen Tefilá. El Gártel está puesto a la altura del diafragma para separar entre la parte superior del cuerpo (que contiene la cabeza y el corazón) que nos distingue de los animales y la parte inferior (que contiene los órganos de la digestión y la reproducción) que nos asemeja a ellos.
El concientizarnos de dichas dos dimensiones que poseemos nos ayuda optar por fortificar nuestra conexión con la dimensión superior para poder luego incursionar, canalizar y elevar la dimensión más importante, o sea la animal.
Aprovecho para desear a todos los lectores una Guemar Jatimá Tová.
Nuestras vidas tienden a estar divididas en espíritu y materia, en lo sagrado y lo cotidiano.
La dicotomía entre espíritu y materia, o entre el Cielo y la Tierra, también se expresa al principio de la lectura de la Torá de esta semana,1 Haazinu, que toma la forma de un largo poema. Moshé es el líder del pueblo judío y está lleno de amor por él, aunque también ve con dolor la historia larga y tortuosa que le tocará vivir. Les advierte sobre los errores que podrían llegar a cometer en su relación con Di-s. Con dramatismo, Moshé primero le habla al pueblo judío sobre el Cielo y la Tierra. Rashi nos cuenta que los llamaba como testigos de las palabras de advertencia que citamos a continuación.
Moshé dice: “Pon la oreja, Cielo, y hablaré; escucha, Tierra, las palabras de mi boca”.
El hebreo es una lengua profunda y poética, lo que hace difícil la traducción al español. Tiene matices que a veces el español no puede transmitir. Los Sabios comentan que la palabra haazinu, que se traduce como “poner la oreja” (ozen significa “oreja”) sugiere una cierta proximidad. Si hay alguien parado a tu lado, puedes hablarle al oído. Por contraste, la palabra que se traduce como “escucha” sugiere una distancia mayor, como si se llamara a alguien que está lejos.
Moshé usa el término más cercano cuando se refiere a los Cielos, y el más distante cuando habla de la Tierra. Los Sabios señalan que era una persona muy espiritual y que, por ende, en su caso los Cielos estaban muy cerca. Por contraste, en lo que a él respecta, la Tierra y todo lo material estaba más lejos.2
Ahora, ¿qué hay de nosotros? ¿La Torá revela este aspecto de Moshé sólo para impresionarnos con lo sagrado que era, o hay una enseñanza que también es relevante para nuestras vidas?
Existe la idea jasídica de que dentro de cada individuo del pueblo judío hay una chispa de Moshé.3 Es nuestro aspecto más profundo. En relación con este Moshé interno, también en nuestro caso, el Cielo está más cerca que la Tierra.
Un momento. ¿No es nuestra tarea como seres humanos y como judíos revelar la presencia de Di-s en el mundo? ¿Seguro tenemos que estar inmersos en las preocupaciones materiales de la vida cotidiana? La respuesta jasídica es: “sí, ¡pero no tienen que deprimirte!”. Por supuesto que estamos activos en el mundo. Pero al mismo tiempo tenemos una afinidad cercana con el Cielo. Por eso las palabras de Moshé tienen una relevancia directa para nosotros también. Estamos activos en el mundo pero, en un sentido más profundo, no nos limitamos a ello.4
Esta misma idea se expresa cuando se acerca la festividad de Sukot. La sucá representa nuestra casa y nuestra vida de todos los días. A la vez, es una esfera espiritual. Una de las enseñanzas de Sukot es que sí, estamos en un mundo material. Pero en cada momento tenemos el poder de hacerlo sagrado.
4. Adaptación libre de la disertación del rebe Lubavitcher en el shabat Haazinu en Torat Menachem 5750 vol. 1, p. 82 ff.
El Doctor Tali Loewenthal es conferencista en la Universidad de Espiritualidad Judía de Londres, director de la Unidad de Investigación de Jabad, y autor de Comunicándose con el Infinito: El surgimiento de la Filosofía de Jabad.
Libyan Jews sit in a sukkah in Tripoli, c. 1920s. Photo: Yad Vashem
Unless you are an aficionado of Jewish law, the name “Pri Megadim” will mean very little to you.
Nonetheless, it happens to be the title of a very important work authored by Rabbi Joseph Teomim, an 18th-century rabbi from Lemberg, then a market town on the eastern limits of the Austro-Hungarian empire, now known as Lviv, in Western Ukraine.
Rabbi Teomim came from an extremely distinguished rabbinic family, and was a great rabbinic scholar in his own right, although he struggled to make a living as a rabbi. That all changed when he began to publish what would soon become one of the most influential works of Jewish law ever written.
The Pri Megadim primarily focuses on explaining and unpacking two earlier commentaries on the definitive halachic code, Shulchan Aruch — namely, Turei Zahav and Siftei Kohen — adding omitted information, and offering insights into the background and legal principles underpinning their views.
Rabbi Teomim thoroughly annotated these works, and in general offered a well-researched backdrop to the Jewish laws that they covered, so-much-so that his work became a mandatory study aid for anyone seeking formal ordination as a rabbi and any position of rabbinic authority.
All of this is by way of introduction to Rabbi Teomim’s fascinating halachic opinion regarding the supremacy of rabbinic law in Judaism, an opinion he illustrated via an obscure discussion about a sukkah.
According to the Pri Megadim, if the rabbis who established halachic guidelines mandated the performance of a Torah mitzvah in a particular way, telling us exactly how it should be performed, then the failure to meet these rabbinic requirements would totally negate the observance of the mitzvah, as if it was never performed, even if by Torah standards the mitzvah had actually been observed.
For example, he says, according to rabbinic law, if a sukkah is so small that one is forced to eat off a table that remains outside the sukkah, one has not discharged one’s sukkah obligation at all.
And although this stringency was only introduced by the rabbis, while Torah law considers such a sukkah fully kosher — since by eating in this sukkah one has disregarded a rabbinic law, according to Rabbi Teomim, one has not even fulfilled one’s Torah obligation.
Puzzlingly, this Pri Megadim seems to contradict at least one opinion in the Talmud. In tractate Sukkah (23a), Rabbi Meir is recorded as allowing a sukkah to be constructed on top of a live animal, while his perennial interlocutor Rabbi Yehudah does not.
The Talmud explains that this dispute centers on the verse (Deut. 16:13): חַג הַסֻכֹּת תַּעֲשֶֹה לְךָ שִבְעַת יָמִים — “you shall observe the festival of Sukkot for seven days” — namely, a sukkah must be available to use for the entire seven-day festival period.
In Rabbi Yehudah’s opinion, since one is not allowed to get onto an animal on Sabbath and festival days, a sukkah constructed on an animal’s back is not just invalid for the festival days and intermediate Shabbat, but for all seven days.
But Rabbi Meir disagrees; in his view, the prohibition of climbing onto an animal is only a rabbinic proscription, and you cannot undo a Torah obligation on the basis of a rabbinic disqualification.
On that basis, it would appear that according to Rabbi Yehudah, a rabbinic prohibition can negate the ability to observe a Torah law, in accordance with the view of the Pri Megadim, while Rabbi Meir’s opinion is that it does not.
And while the rabbis determined that in a halachic dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah, the law goes according to Rabbi Yehudah, it is strange that the Pri Megadim’s halachic principle seemingly contradicts this senior Talmudic sage, and he does not see fit to reconcile himself with Rabbi Meir’s opinion.
But actually, upon reflection, we can save the Pri Megadim from the indignity of this glaring blunder. It is possible that the rabbinic insistence on having a table inside one’s sukkah is a specific requirement for a sukkah, and Rabbi Meir might very well make an exception to his leniency when one fails to uphold a rabbinic proscription that directly correlates to the observance of the law itself.
Meanwhile, the prohibition of sitting on an animal on yomtov applies to all festivals, not just Sukkot, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the validity of a sukkah. Rabbi Meir would not accept dismissing a Torah-mandated mitzvah on the basis of a general rabbinic restriction unrelated to that specific mitzva, and that is why he allows a sukkah to be used even if it is on an animal’s back, and even though that sukkah may not be used on the first days of the festival or during the intermediate Shabbat.
What I love most about this debate and discussion — and particularly about the Pri Megadim’s assertive stance — is the reverence it demonstrates for rabbinic law, which has been the backbone of Jewish identity since the dawn of Jewish nationhood.
Maimonides writes that the Torah itself established the centrality of rabbinic input into Jewish law, with the verse (Deut. 17:11): לֹא תָסוּר מִן הַדָבָר אֲשֶר יַגִידוּ לְךָ יָמִין וּשְמֹאל — “you must not deviate from any word that they tell you, neither right nor left” (MT Neg. Mitzvot 312).
It is a fact that all those Jews who have favored relying purely on scripture as the source for Jewish law — such as the Sadducees, the Boethusians, and the Karaites — have long since evaporated as identifiable Jewish groups, having bound themselves up with an ossified and ultimately self-destructive form of Judaism that undermined any hope for their future.
Only Rabbinic Judaism, with its strong focus on a carefully managed evolutionary halachic system, has managed to sustain itself over millennia, bequeathing a living, breathing, dynamic Torah to each emerging generation, who have in turn handed it down to the next.
And so, as we sit in our sukkah this year, with a table firmly inside it for us to eat off, we would do well to reflect on the remarkable ancient tradition that we have been lucky enough to be born into.
Our identity as Jews only has meaning because of it.
In one of his essays, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik questions why the sages decided to include an “irrelevant” portion in the Torah reading on Rosh Hashana, about how, after coming back from the “Akedath Yitschak” (the trial of the sacrifice of Yitschak), Avraham was told that Milkah, the wife of his brother Nachor, had given birth and that his second wife also gave birth to several children. (Bereshith 23:20-24) What is the reason for the inclusion of this portion on Rosh Hashana?
Rabbi Soloveitchik explained that the sages included it so as to warn all Jews that even after such an overwhelming event as Akedath Yitschak, little, if anything, was learned from the event. After hearing from Avraham what had transpired, his family went back to their normal day-to-day life, as if nothing had happened. While the Akedah was, no doubt, one of the most crucial moments in man’s history, carrying enormous moral consequences for all mankind, even Avraham’s family did not really take notice.
Such could easily happen on the day after Yom Kippur. While this day often raises us to the highest level of spirituality, the “day after” may turn out to be just another day, in which nothing even reminds us that the day before was one of great moral and religious exultation.
Anywhere in the world, on the day after Yom Kippur, the synagogue service really should be a completely different experience from what people are used to. Yom Kippur should still be in the bones of all synagogue participants. Its spirit should still be felt with every prayer. It should be completely impossible for synagogue services to return to their old ways, in which prayers are said as if “nothing happened.”The truth is that no prayer in the coming year could ever be the same. Anything else makes a mockery of Yom Kippur, the Ten Days of Repentance and the essential meaning of Teshuva, repentance.
That we do not try to implement a different and more spiritual synagogue service the “day after” is a major tragedy. We ought to be taking action to change this situation. Nothing is more dangerous in religious life than indifference.
Delving further, we discover a serious flaw in modern religious life. On some level, it seems that many of us do not fully believe in our prayers on the High Holidays. While crying to God hundreds of times on Yom Kippur that He is the only One, we seem to deny this fact the next day, when our prayers are, again, said out of habit. By saying that God is the only One, people express their absolute belief that God is the only real Power in this world and the Source of all life. This knowledge, after being forgotten over the last year, gets re-discovered and re-established on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It should bring about a transformation, wherein every human being should wake up. He or she should see everything in a different light for all of the next year. If such is not the case, then one’s life contradicts one’s beliefs. This is a serious matter. Even those who may not be so sure in their beliefs, but still go to synagogue because they believe that Judaism may carry the truth and that prayers may, after all, be of help, will have to realize that their prayers cannot be the same. Anything less is “the curse of religious agnosticism.”
All this reveals that in most cases, synagogue attendance is in serious trouble, and that the daily attendance of services is no longer an indication of serious religiosity. Even the observance of other religious observances, such as Shabbath and kashruth may no longer be the result of real religiosity. They may be nothing more than an expression of a traditional lifestyle, without true religiosity. While this surely has value, it is far from enough. Religious life should be devout—an upheaval. If it is not, it will ultimately disintegrate. “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance,” said Abraham Joshua Heschel. This should wake up religious thinkers and leaders and make them realize that a different form of religious education is of the greatest necessity.
At the present time, the State of Israel finds itself in one of its most critical moments. Once more the existence of the Jewish State is at stake. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in many countries, and Jews will have to wake up and understand their responsibilities.
In these difficult days, synagogue services throughout the world should undergo a serious religious transformation. It is the obligation of every Rabbi or Rabbanit to do everything in their power to make this happen. If we do not, we have gravely violated our mission. At this time in Jewish history, no Jew can go on his way without feeling that she or he has come to a crossroad. All of us have to be careful that we are not guilty of lip service. Sure, it is a very difficult task but at least we should try our utmost.
If we do this, we will be able to enter our Succah and wave the lulav with the feeling that we really have accomplished something great, and that we are indeed fulfilling the commandment to be joyful on these days. “Joy is man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection”, said Spinoza. (Ethics, 3,defs. 2,3) And he’s right!
May all of us succeed, at least a little. Chag Sameach!
Aharon shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. Leviticus 16:21 (The Israel Bible™)
The most important Temple service of the year held on Yom Kippur is described in great detail but one detail remains shrouded in mystery: the location of the Azazel cliff. An unlikely investigator thinks he has unraveled that mystery, but his solution bears with it a buried treasure of gold and silver worth millions.
Yom Kippur Temple Service
Since the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the holy day of Yom Kippur has been observed with intense prayer and fasting. But the Bible mandates 15 specific sacrifices and many other rituals for Yom Kippur outlined in Leviticus chapter 16. This included the Kohen Gadol (high priest) wearing five different sets of garments, immersion in the mikvah (ritual bath) five times, and washing his hands and feet ten times. The temple service on Yom Kippur was the only time the Kohen Gadol entered the Kodesh Kedoshim (holy of holies) three times, the only day of the year he was permitted to enter the site that lay at the heart of the Temple. The day culminated in a lottery that chooses between two goats, purchased at the same time, that were identical in appearance and worth. The fate of the two goats is intertwined and should one goat die, an entirely new set must be provided as it is not sufficient to merely replace the deceased animal. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for the lottery (גורל) also means ‘fate.’
Two gold plates, one inscribed with the word “to God” and the other with “to Azazel”, are presented to the Kohen Gadol. He blindly assigns each gold plate to a goat. The goat that is assigned the plate inscribed with “to God” is sacrificed in the normal manner, slaughtered by the Kohen Gadol and burned on the altar inside the Temple as a sin offering. Its blood was sprinkled in the Holy of Holies eight times. The one exceptional aspect of that sacrifice is that the confession of sins that normally precedes sin offerings is omitted.
The other goat is treated in a manner that seems to contradict every rule pertaining to sacrifices. The Kohen Gadol placed his hands on the head of the goat and performed the confession of sins. A crimson skein of wool was wrapped around the horns of the doomed goat and an identical skein was wrapped around the door handles of the Temple. The goat was led into the wilderness outside of Jerusalem a distance that was five times that permitted on the sabbath. Ten stations were prepared along the way with food and drink, thereby technically increasing the permitted distance. Despite the emissary being in the midst of the fast-day ritual, he was offered food and drink at each stop along the way. He refused the offers, of course.
At the end of the journey, the skein of scarlet wool was removed from the goat’s horns and tied to a nearby rock and thrown from a cliff. The cliff was so sheer that the goat tumbled and torn to pieces from the fall. If Israel’s sins were forgiven by this act of contrition, the crimson thread would miraculously turn white as would the thread on the Temple doors. This aspect of the Yom Kippur service was hinted at by the Prophet Isaiah.
“Come, let us reach an understanding, —says Hashem. Be your sins like crimson, They can turn snow-white; Be they red as dyed wool, They can become like fleece.” Isaiah 1:18
It was documented that for the last forty years of the Second Temple, the thread remained scarlet.
The final destination is referred to as Azazel but the meaning of that word is elusive, sometimes explained as being derived from the Hebrew עז (az), meaning ‘bold,’ or alternatively, from the Aramaic עזיל (azil) meaning ‘to go.’ The apocryphal book of Enoch, for example, refers to a fallen angel named Azazel who is blamed for the proliferation of weapons.
It is interesting to note that the man who purifies all of Israel through this mystifying ceremony is made impure, similar to the equally inexplicable preparation of the Red Heifer which also defies the normal Temple customs.
The Mystery of Azazel Solved
Most of the aspects of this enigmatic ritual are described in detail in the Talmud (oral law) but one detail has been lost: the precise location of the final destination, the cliff where the goat meets its end. Five sabbath journies, a distance described in Jewish law, is approximately 12 miles. The region is in the Judean desert across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem but is referred to simply as צוק (tsuk, literally ‘a cliff’). The Talmud describes it as a “rough and rocky place.”
The Copper Scroll was discovered in 1952 near Qumran on the shores of the Dead Seaand is considered part of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. The Copper Scroll differs in that it was found in situ – on location – and unlike the other Dead Sea Scrolls that were written on animal hide, the Copper Scroll, as its name suggests, was inscribed into a thin sheet of copper. The Hebrew used in the Copper Scroll indicates it was written in a later period than the other Dead Sea Scrolls.
Incredibly, while the other Dead Sea Scrolls contain religious and Biblical works, the Copper Scroll is simply a list of 64 locations and corresponding amounts of gold and silver from the Temple that were hidden away. One of the locations is described as holding priestly vestments.
The Copper Scroll, an ancient artifact inscribed in Hebrew, is currently in a museum in Amman, Jordan.
In 2006, Barfield set out to discover the truth of the Copper scroll, following in the footsteps of Vendyl Jones, a Texas preacher turned Biblical archaeologist. Jones’ archaeological investigations at Qumran had discovered a small vial of Persimmon Oil used to anoint kings and high priests and a huge cache of Temple Incense.
The description of inscribed on the Copper Scroll indicated that the hidden treasure was worth millions, perhaps even billions, of dollars. But, like Jones, Barfield’s motivation was simple.
“I want to return the Temple artifacts to the Jewish People,” Barfield told Breaking Israel News. “It’s time.”
His research led him to believe that all of the treasure was hidden in Qumran itself. Some archaeologists surmised the site was a community of Essenes, an austere sect of Judaism, flourished from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE.
Barfield also discovered that one of the burial places in the Copper Scroll was described as “the mouth of the Tsuk. It cites Tsuk twice for two different burial locations, describing it as “the lofty cliff for judgment.”
In his excursions into the desert area surrounding Qumran, Barfield believes he discovered the precise location of the Azazel ceremony; a lonely 180 foot-tall sheer cliff overlooking the ancient site.
Barfield began his search for the Azazel cliff by using the specified distance as an approximation, drawing a circle on the map around the Temple Mount with a radius of 20 miles. The top of the cliff is approximately 20 miles due east of Jerusalem and the foot of the cliff is just outside Qumran.
“It’s quite a dangerous spot,” Barfield said. “It’s fenced off and I have never seen anyone out there. But there is a path leading precisely to that high spot on the cliff. If you’ve got your little goat and your fixin’ to say goodbye, that would be a perfect spot.”
Barfield visited other sites believed to be the elusive Azazel but none fit the description as well as the cliff overlooking Qumran.
“One site was just a big hill,” Barfield said. “If you pushed a goat off of the peak, all you would get is an angry goat.”
Near the top of the cliff, Barfield discovered a large rock with a peculiar hole drilled into the top in a manner that would be most convenient for inserting the pole used to hang the skein of crimson wool.
Barfield emphasized that his theories were still no more than theories.
“I don’t know that this was the spot but for now, no one knows,” Barfield said. “The important thing is to keep asking the questions and keep looking for the answers. If they were going to do something as important as this, I am sure they would want to do it in a place that was watched over by people who were meticulous about ritual purity, like the residents of Qumran were. That is why they stored the Persimmon Oil and the incense there. It was clearly connected to the Temple in many ways.”
Barfield emphasized that the areas to the north, south, and west of Jerusalem were settled.
“It was only to the east, towards Qumran and the Dead Sea, that you had true wilderness,” Barfield said.
For the time being, Barfield’s investigations at Qumran are stalled, awaiting government permission. Building the Third Temple is an explosive political issue, and finding the actual Temple vessels would thrust that issue into the forefront.
With the answer tantalizingly close, Barfield believes public opinion can tip the scales and help defuse the opposition. But the recent political impasse in the Israeli elections is also a source of hope.
“As the situation currently stands, any archaeological finds from the Jordan valley could be claimed by the Palestinians as their property,” Barfield said. In fact, the Palestinian Authority has tried to claim the Dead Sea Scrolls as part of their ancestral heritage. “Netanyahu promised to annex the Jordan Valley if he gets elected. Maybe after he does that, the Israeli government will allow us to dig in Qumran in the Jordan Valley.”
“I’ll make the Palestinians a deal,” Barfield said. “I’ll give them every single thing we find, every gold or silver coin, every scroll, every artifact. Everything that has Arabic on it or mentions the Palestinians, I will personally give it to them.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I would like to thank Shelley Neese, author of the Copper Scroll Project. Her research into the Yom Kippur Temple service is truly remarkable.
“Then Moses recited the words of the following poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel.” (Deut. 31:30)
This verse concludes last week’s portion, Parashat Vayeilech, and in doing so, creates one of the most dramatic cliffhangers in our entire Torah. Surely this forthcoming poem, Moses’ actual last words to the Israelites, will be emotional, inspirational, and transformational. Although the translation above from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. (p. 1,390) uses the word “poem,” the Hebrew text is shirah, which can mean “poem” or “song.” And in fact, this week’s portion, Parashat Haazinu, is most commonly known as Shirat Moshe, the “Song of Moses;” a beautiful way for Moses to musically frame his leadership experience with the Israelite community. Moses initially cemented his connection with this community in song with Shirat Hayam, the “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15), and he will now conclude his relationship with the Israelites in the same powerful medium.
The perception of this song as magnificent and significant is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. The Song of Moses is included in a list of 10 songs that occur at important moments in the life of the nation of Israel:
There are 10 songs of the Israelites…The first was in Egypt, as is said: You shall have a song as in the night when a feast is hallowed (Isaiah 30:29). The second was at the Red Sea, as it is said: Then Moses sang (Exod. 15:1). The third was at the well: Then Israel sang this song (Num. 21:16). The fourth took place when Moses said: And it came to pass when Moses had made an end of writing (Deut. 31:24) … (Midrash Tanchuma, Beshalach 10:3, 11)
Maimonides maintains that some communities recite the Song of Moses daily in their morning prayers:
“In some places, it is the custom, after the blessing beginning, “Praised by Thy name,” to read daily “The Song of the Red Sea” (Exodus 15:1-18), and then the blessings before the Shema. In other places, the custom is to read Haazinu (Deuteronomy, Chapter 32). Some individuals read both Songs … “(Mishneh Torah, Prayer and the Priestly Blessing 7:13)
Given the weight of the expectations established for the Song of Moses by both the Torah and subsequent Jewish texts, we might logically imagine that Haazinu contains a song that is musically majestic, lavish, unique, and unequivocally supreme.
Surprisingly, the actual music of the Song of Moses is extraordinarily simple and repetitive as dictated by the cantillation (trope) marks we use to chant the Torah. Of the 13 common musical phrases used throughout the rest of the Torah, the majority of the 43 verses of song in Parashat Haazinu (Deut. 32:1-43) employ only three of them. Moreover, those three phrases are, musically, the most unadorned phrases of the entire trope system: they are basic building blocks that contain very short musical expressions and barely deviate in pitch degree from the tonal center, the “home feeling,” of the musical structure. Finally, the verses of Haazinu combine these three musical phrases in repetitive patterns that become highly predictable very early in the song. These patterns continue throughout the remaining 37 verses, so that more than half of the verses of this song sound exactly the same from a musical perspective.
What has happened to Moses’ last, great musical performance? The text of the Song of Moses is full of drama and deeply artistic imagery:
“… May my discourse come down as the rain…
Like an eagle who rouses its nestlings,
Gliding down to its young …
Nursing them with honey from the crag, …
For a fire has flared in My wrath,
Has consumed the earth and its increase,…
Wasting famine, ravaging plague,
Deadly pestilence, and fanged beasts
Will I let loose against them …
I will make My arrows drunk with blood—
As My sword devours flesh.”
These excerpts display just a small sampling of the evocative language found within this song – each one potentially arousing ornate and operatic musical expressions in our minds. Why would Moses choose a modest melody full of replication as the sound of his parting words to the Israelites?
In the award-winning book, On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, Princeton Professor Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis uses the fields of music theory, psycholinguistics, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology to explore the purpose and power of musical repetition. Among the many theories that Margulis articulates around the practice of repetition are four observations that can connect to the conundrum of constant musical reiteration in the Song of Moses.
Repetition enables understanding
While discussing the similarities between fixed expressions in music and formulaic expressions in language, Margulis supports an established conclusion that “formulaic expressions are processed more quickly than similar-length sequences generated creatively” (Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, On Repeat, [NY/London: Oxford University Press, 2014)] p. 6). That is, expected and familiar melodies help us understand and internalize content more efficiently. As Moses’ time to depart draws near, he knows that he must convey his message economically and effectively.
Repetition yields implicit participation
By the time we reach the end of the sixth verse of the Song of Moses, most contemporary listeners have already digested the repetitive musical pattern and can anticipate much of the rest of the song. Margulis argues that this reality, a direct result of the musical repetition, draws the listener into the experience and empowers us. She observes that with repetition, “part of what makes us feel that we’re a musical subject rather than a musical object is that we are endlessly listening ahead, such that the sounds seem almost to execute our volition, after the fact … repetition … encourages embodiment” (Margulis, p.12). Through musical recurrence, Moses engages the Israelites as implicit participants, drawing them in to connect to this song in a more active way. As Margulis notes later on, “repetition can serve … as an expressive aid to virtual participatory involvement in presentational music where there is a clear divide between the active performers and the passive listeners (Margulis, p.144).”
Repetition highlights deviation
“Once an occurrence has been identified as a repetition, the potential for meaningful upheaval emerges … musical repetition often serves precisely to make such disruption possible” (Margulis, p. 170). Throughout the 43 verses of the Song of Moses, there are only two major musical deviations – in Deuteronomy 32:14 and 32:39-40. These two instances utilize dramatically different trope symbols and briefly explode the melodic pattern. While verse 32:14 calls attention to the imminent shift in the story line – from God’s love to Israel’s ingratitude – verses 32:39-40 emphasize one of the main themes of the text – God is omnipotent and singular. The attention that these two phrases command is made possible only by the musical contrast: Moses awakens the Israelites to the important ideas in his song by using melodic repetition punctuated only very occasionally.
Repetition creates a lasting impression
Finally, and perhaps most importantly for Moses, consistent musical repetition can create a neurological and emotional imprint on those listening, such that each of the listeners can then replicate the song on their own once the initial performance has ceased. Repetition enables the music, and therefore the message, to live on. As Margulis notes, “the notion of ‘the singing that never ends’ traces the song’s path from the sounding, external world of the co-participating community across the silence into ‘the heart.’ The song’s presence in the interior, subjective, felt world of the individual when he is ‘alone again’ is described as the most powerful part of the experience” (Margulis, p. 141).
Reflecting back on the entirety of the Song of Moses, we discover that Moses uses musical repetition here as a purposeful tool to deepen and accentuate the profundity of this moment. As he prepares to depart from their presence, Moses employs a haunting, recurrent chant to ensure that the Israelites will understand, feel connected to, recognize the contours of, and eternally remember the wisdom he has gleaned from his life’s work. In this instance, simplicity itself is what breeds strength and staying power.
It is very hard to say you are sorry – and even harder to really mean it. It is not any easier to truly forgive. A painful abyss exists between the offender and the offended – an alienated world in which each side must deal alone with their own perception of an unfortunate encounter. And the graver the injury, the more acute the need for forgiveness. If we do not take responsibility for our misdeeds, we obviate their moral significance.
As we approach the Day of Atonement, we can take three paths to forgiveness: focusing on the injured, on the injurer, or-ideally and most challenging-on the relationship between them.
“I Hereby Forgive”
Sometimes we no longer have the opportunity for meaningful, heartfelt communication with a person who hurt us. In such a case, what are we to do with our hurt feelings? Considering this troubling issue, the 16th-century Safed kabbalists added a paragraph at the beginning of the Bedtime Sh’ma (a prayer recited just before going to sleep) which declares unconditional forgiveness for all those who may have hurt us:
I hereby forgive anyone who angered or annoyed me
or who sinned against me,
whether against my body, my property,
my honor, or anything of mine;
whether they did so unwillingly,
willfully, carelessly, or deliberately;
whether through speech or action…
And may no one be punished
on my account.
When we pardon a priori all those who caused us physical, emotional, or financial harm, without their having to express remorse or even know that they have hurt us, ours is a generous act that can facilitate our peace of mind. But without a true dialogue, it is incomplete.
We may have also experienced the mental anguish of being unable to communicate with someone we hurt, because that person is no longer alive or because s/he chooses not to be in a forgiving relationship with us. Friends may advise us, in such a case, to forgive ourselves, saying that no good comes out of self-flagellation, but in Judaism, feeling remorse and sorrow for the hurt we have caused another is not enough. In order for your forgiveness to count and be deemed meaningful, the hurt party must forgive you. Even God Almighty cannot forgive a transgression against a fellow human being. The Mishnah states that Yom Kippur is effective “only if one has appeased one’s fellow” (Yoma 8:9). Maimonides adds: “Even though one has made compensation, the offender must also appease the one he has injured and ask his forgiveness. Even if a person only annoyed another with words, he has to pacify the latter and entreat him until he has obtained his forgiveness” (Hilkhot T’shuvah 2:10). In a way, an offended individual stands between you and God. In order to be able to address the Divine, you need first to properly address the injured party. However, even if we aren’t given the opportunity to enter into dialogue with a person we hurt, we can nonetheless incorporate our feeling of remorse into a new commitment to becoming a person of greater truth and honesty, actively striving to bring blessings to our world. As the Kotzker Rebbe purportedly said:“There is nothing more complete than a broken heart.” Sometimes our very brokenness can lead us to tikkun (repairing and mending).
Forgiveness Through Dialogue
In his song “Al Tifchad” (“Don’t Be Afraid”), the Israeli singer Ehud Bannai declares: “So believe that if you’ve ruined something, you can also mend it.” That, however, can be difficult, especially if the breach is serious.
The Israeli philosophy professor Yotam Benziman argues (in Forgive and Not Forget: The Ethics of Forgiveness) that the proper and only way to mend an injury is through “dialogic forgiveness.” Both the offender and the offended carry the memory of the injustice. For forgiveness to occur, they must integrate it into their life fabric, and grow from this painful place. Rather than putting the hurtful act “behind us,” or separating the deed from the doer by condemning the action but acquitting its perpetrator, or leaving the act unowned (as if what a dear one did was wrong, but she is still the same loving person), Benziman proposes a forgiveness process based upon remembering it.
In order, for example, for a couple to resolve a marital crisis upon the wife’s admission that she was having an affair, the husband and wife need to engage in an honest dialogue about what went wrong, Benziman says. The wife might explain to her husband how lonely she felt when he spent long hours at work and was inattentive to her need for emotional support. She would acknowledge the hurt caused by her infidelity and admit that she was wrong to seek warmth and comfort elsewhere instead of discussing how she was feeling with her husband. She would ask for forgiveness and commit herself to mending their relationship. For his part, the husband would tell his wife his side of the story-how he feels about what happened, what his needs were, what he expects from their relationship. The wife needs to take responsibility for her offense, and the husband needs to agree to relate to her as an individual who chose to do wrong and now chooses to atone for it, making the effort to repair the broken relationship. Others may assist in the process, but the two parties, together, carry the burden of the healing.
That said, both individuals here are not equally culpable. The offender needs to recognize that her infidelity is at the core of the couple’s pain. She cannot forgive herself; she’s dependent on her husband to forgive her. One cannot force forgiveness; one can only ask for it.
Mutual commitment to the relationship builds a bridge, fragile and tentative as it may be, over the abyss separating the two. It is its own act of creation, recalling Genesis 1:2: “The spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.”
In a sense, God is the third partner in the complex relationship between offender and forgiver. Over those who truly seek justice and forgiveness, the Divine Presence hovers. Our relationships matter because there is an intrinsic kedushah (sanctity) in them.
Imagine how we might interact with others if we took care to remember that our relationships involve the Divine.
Dalia Marx is an assistant professor of Liturgy and Midrash at HUC-JIR’s Jerusalem campus.
Kapos, called Funktionshäftling by the SS, were prisoners who collaborated with the Nazis to serve in leadership or administrative roles over others interned in the same Nazi concentration camp.
How Nazis Used Kapos
The vast system of Nazi concentration camps in occupied Europe was under the control of the SS (Schutzstaffel). While there were many SS who staffed the camps, their ranks were supplemented with local auxiliary troops and prisoners. Prisoners that were chosen to be in these higher positions served in the role of Kapos.
The origin of the term “Kapo” is not definitive. Some historians believe it was directly transferred from the Italian word “capo” for “boss,” while others point to more indirect roots in both German and French. In the Nazi concentration camps, the term Kapo was first used at Dachau from which it spread to the other camps.
Regardless of the origin, Kapos played a vital role in the Nazi camp system as a large number of prisoners within the system required constant oversight. Most Kapos were put in charge of a prisoner work gang, called Kommando. It was the Kapos job to brutally force prisoners to do forced labor, despite the prisoners being sick and starving.
Facing prisoner against prisoner served two goals for the SS: it allowed them to meet a labor need while simultaneously furthering tensions between various groups of prisoners.
Kapos were, in many instances, even crueler than the SS themselves. Because their tenuous position depended on the satisfaction of the SS, many Kapos took extreme measures against their fellow prisoners to maintain their privileged positions.
Pulling most Kapos from the pool of prisoners interned for violent criminal behavior also allowed this cruelty to flourish. While there were Kapos whose original internment was for asocial, political, or racial purposes (such as Jews), the vast majority of Kapos were criminal internees.
Survivor memoirs and recollections relate varying experiences with Kapos. A select few, such as Primo Levi and Victor Frankl, credit a certain Kapo with ensuring their survival or helping them get slightly better treatment; while others, such as Elie Wiesel, share a far more common experience of cruelty.
Early in Wiesel’s camp experience at Auschwitz, he encounters, Idek, a cruel Kapo. Wiesel relates in Night:
One day when Idek was venting his fury, I happened to cross his path. He threw himself on me like a wild beast, beating me in the chest, on my head, throwing me to the ground and picking me up again, crushing me with ever more violent blows, until I was covered in blood. As I bit my lips in order not to howl with pain, he must have mistaken my silence for defiance and so he continued to hit me harder and harder. Abruptly, he calmed down and sent me back to work as if nothing had happened.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl also tells of a Kapo known simply as “The Murderous Capo.”
Kapos Had Privileges
The privileges of being a Kapo varied from camp to camp but almost always resulted in better living conditions and a reduction in physical labor.
In the larger camps, such as Auschwitz, Kapos received separate rooms within the communal barracks, which they would often share with a self-selected assistant.
Kapos also received better clothing, better rations, and the ability to supervise labor rather than actively participate in it. Kapos were sometimes able to use their positions to also procure special items within the camp system such as cigarettes, special foods, and alcohol.
A prisoner’s ability to please the Kapo or establish a rare rapport with him/her could, in many instances, meant the difference between life and death.
Levels of Kapos
In the larger camps, there were several different levels within the “Kapo” designation. Some of the titles deemed as Kapos included:
Lagerältester (camp leader): Within the various sections of large camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Lagerältester oversaw the entire section and served largely in administrative roles. This was the highest of all prisoner positions and came with the most privileges.
Blockältester (block leader): A position that was common in most camps, the Blockältester was responsible for the administration and discipline of an entire barracks. This position customarily afforded its holder with a private room (or one shared with an assistant) and better rations.
Stubenälteste (section leader): Oversaw portions of large barracks such as those in Auschwitz I and reported to the Blockältester about specific needs related to the barrack’s prisoners.
At the time of liberation, some Kapos were beaten and killed by the fellow prisoners that they had spent months or years tormenting, but in most cases, Kapos moved on with their lives in a similar fashion to other victims of Nazi persecution.
A few found themselves on trial in post-war West Germany as part of the U.S. military trials held there, but this was the exception, not the norm. In one of the Auschwitz trials of the 1960s, two Kapos were found guilty of murder and cruelty and sentenced to life in prison.
Others were tried in East Germany and Poland but without much success. The only known court-sanctioned executions of Kapos occurred in immediate post-war trials in Poland, where five of seven men convicted for their roles as Kapos had their death sentences carried out.
Ultimately, historians and psychiatrists are still exploring the role of Kapos as more information becomes available through recently released archives from the East. Their role as prisoner functionaries within the Nazi concentration camp system was vital to its success but this role, like many in the Third Reich, is not without its complexities.
Kapos are viewed as both opportunists and survivalists, and their complete history may never be known.